Now it's trial lawyers who are tagged as California's broadband cops

23 January 2018 by Steve Blum
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Update: SB 460 has been bucked to the California senate’s judiciary committee, where it’s due for a hearing tomorrow morning (Wednesday, 24 Jan 2018).

The latest version of a bill that aims to reinstate a network neutrality regime in California allows consumers to sue broadband companies that don’t abide by the three “bright line rules” that were thrown out last month by the Federal Communications Commission: no blocking, throttling or paid prioritisation.

The California senate’s appropriations committee’s endorsement of senate bill 460 last week included a promise to find a more appropriate net neutrality enforcer than the California Public Utilities Commission, as originally planned. But rather than give the job particularly to prosecutors, as stated last week, SB 460 now unleashes the legal gates of contingency fee hell on Internet service providers.

The latest gambit is to write net neutrality principles into California’s Consumers Legal Remedies Act, which is wide ranging law that prohibits a number of unscrupulous practices and allows consumers to go to court when believe they’ve been injured. That often takes the form of class action suits fronted by law firms that get a huge cut of any subsequent judgement.

If nothing else, it’s an effective political strategy. The predatory bar is an even bigger source of cash payments to politicians than telecoms companies.

The act doesn’t preclude the California attorney general or county district attorneys from pursuing their own consumer protection cases, so they wouldn’t be completely out of the picture. But they’re also not going to be the ones putting up billboards or running late night TV ads looking for clients. If SB 460 makes it into law in its current form and, despite long odds, it’s not thrown out by federal courts, then big telephone and cable companies will be a perpetual target of class action suits.

But so will small ISPs, even the ones that have honestly promised to uphold net neutrality principles. That’s something to keep in mind: AT&T and Comcast are big enough that they can treat class action suits as an ordinary cost of doing business. Independent ISPs can’t. That makes them an even more attractive target for trial lawyers.

As amended yesterday, SB 460 also requires state agencies to buy Internet service from net neutral providers. Next stop for the bill is a floor vote by the full senate. The deadline for action is a week from tomorrow.